Patchy approach to final exams, mark freezing amid Omicron sparks worries of grade inflation
Current inconsistencies reignite pre-pandemic debate over assessing student learning
As a student trustee for his Toronto-area school board, Bruce Yu hears loud and clear from his peers how tough school continues to be amid the pandemic.
The Omicron variant of the coronavirus has caused further disruptions to their in-class learning following winter break. But unlike earlier in the pandemic, Canadian school officials haven't universally moved to freeze student grades or do away with final exams — even amid high numbers of student and school staff absences for illness or isolation.
That inconsistency is causing many to worry about an unfair playing field developing, especially among those high schoolers vying for post-secondary.
"Students are concerned that this policy being implemented at certain school boards, and not other school boards, is going to potentially lead to disadvantages when it comes to post-secondary admissions, scholarships, grants and students awards," said Yu.
The Grade 11 student attends Dr. G.W. Williams Secondary School in Aurora, Ont., and serves as trustee for the York Region District School Board (YRDSB).
More flexibility with assessment, as educators were directed to implement earlier in the pandemic, helps students weather the ongoing disruptions of pandemic learning, said Yu.
Last month, he supported a letter the YRDSB sent to Ontario Education Minister Stephen Lecce, calling for the province to provide "consistent assessment and evaluation guidance" for all boards.
"We want to ensure that all schools and all students have a fair playing field and level playing field," he said.
Yu's board is a neighbour to the Toronto District School Board, which, just a few weeks back, froze secondary school marks to the last day before winter break. Any subsequent tasks, activities or evaluations were factored in only if they improved a student's grade.
TDSB director of education Colleen Russell-Rawlins explained that families were concerned about more missed class time and increased absences due to the Omicron variant, as well as students once again forced to rapidly shift to remote learning in January, so close to the end of the high school semester.
P.E.I. Education Minister Natalie Jameson had similarly cancelled winter exams for all Islander high schoolers in mid-January. At the time, she said high stakes education testing would be inappropriate and unfair to students.
Not all provinces, however, have issued as clear a directive to school officials.
The Regina Catholic School Division (RCSD), for instance, made exams optional for its secondary students, but at the same time, other Saskatchewan divisions moved ahead with them.
According to RCSD director of education and CEO Sean Chase, the decision came after consultation with school communities, school leaders and senior administrators — and after noting some post-secondary schools had already cancelled winter exams due to rising Omicron cases.
'An academic risk-free environment'
Families and educators noted that many of the division's students had missed stretches of class, either due to illness or isolation requirements, prior to finals, he said, and they wondered how many healthy, not-in-isolation students could actually be present to even take in-person exams.
"At the rate we were seeing Omicron spread through our schools, as well as kids who are isolating due to the public health order of the time, we were fearful that [the number of finals needing to be rescheduled] could be in the hundreds … and just make it logistically impossible," Chase explained.
"The finals then became what we considered an academic risk-free environment. We invited all students who are healthy to participate, take the opportunity to potentially raise their grade. But we also let them know, walking into it, that the results of their course final — or finalization activity, in some instances — could not have a detrimental effect on what grade they were walking into from there."
The decision received mostly positive responses, said Chase, and participation rates turned out higher than expected.
"Lots of kids did take the opportunity to come in and give it their best try to be able to raise their mark," he said.
The division had already started reflecting on how teachers were assessing students prior to the pandemic, Chase said, so this latest move fit with its pre-existing direction and discussions.
While studying for and writing an exam are essential skills to be developed in high school, "do our students need to do it for every single course from Grade 10 through Grade 12?" he asked.
"Is it something where we might consider a reduction in the number of formal finals to some select compulsory courses? … Maybe there's a little bit more of a balance to it, in terms of how [students] end each of our semesters."
Uneven assessment and grade inflation
While school systems are still being forced to make decisions on the fly due to rapidly changing public health recommendations, it's important for students to be assessed in a comparable manner, said Louis Volante, a professor of educational studies at Brock University in St. Catharines, Ont.
"At the very least, I'd like to see provincial jurisdictions have a consistent approach. We can't always ensure consistency across provinces — because education is a provincial jurisdiction. But at least within a province, we'd like to see a very similar approach," he said.
This current inconsistency in assessment is likely to exacerbate grade inflation — already an issue before the pandemic, said Volante.
In the short term, he said, this can mean if some Grade 12 students have higher final marks, it raises the bar of grade-point averages submitted to post-secondary institutions for admission.
In the longer run, grade inflation can also be negative for those accepted into highly competitive, rigorous post-secondary programs, he said, as they may employ very different assessment practices than what students had experienced in high school.
In some cases, students used to receiving 90s might see their grades plummet to a 65 per cent average, for instance, after a tough first year of university, Volante said.
"The biggest challenge is really the disconnect that we see between secondary schools' assessment approaches and what students typically find in first- or second-year post-secondary … a lecture with two, three, four or five hundred students. As a consequence of that, there's often an over-reliance on what we refer to as selected response — and you would know that as multiple choice," Volante said.
"[Students] often experience a much more constricted range [of evaluations] when they get to post-secondary settings, because of the simple costs of doing the assessment and evaluation when you're dealing with such large first-year classes."
There's long been debate about evolving how teachers measure student learning — particularly the divide between using traditional "paper and pencil" assessment versus authentic assessment, Volante said. Labelling the parts of a microscope would be an example of the former, while demonstrating correct use of a microscope is the latter.
However, with the pandemic's shift to online and hybrid environments, teachers at all levels have had to adapt how they evaluate learning, along with nearly every other aspect of their work.
As an example, Volante pointed to the fact that some teachers made a shift to open-book tests, "so it's less about actually knowing information versus accessing that information or being able to utilize information that's around you."
"It's very hard to think of anything positive coming out of COVID, but if it's made us rethink our approaches to how we assess and evaluate students, that's a positive thing," he said.
"Because, ultimately, we need to start thinking about assessment that is much more aligned with what actually students need to be able to know and do in a 21st-century economy."
With files from Deana Sumanac-Johnson, Nazima Walji and Shae Hayes-Tyrell